Heritage angels sing: A review of WNC literature for the holidays
by Rob Neufeld
Cherokee voices continue to resound here. The quest for a balanced relationship with the natural world, and regret over lost ways, are very much on the minds of contemporary writers.
“We are going where there is always plenty to eat,” a man tells his fellow villagers in the Cherokee tale, “Origin of the Bear.” Agriculture had been good to the Cherokee, thanks to Selu, but there was still a strong movement for hunting and gathering.
“When you yourselves are hungry,” the man tells the villagers after he and his family become bears, “come into the woods and call us and we shall come to give you our own flesh.” He teaches people bear-calling songs.
“Origin of the Bear” is one of many items of lore that had been collected from Cherokee elders by anthropologist James Mooney in the 1890s and published in “Myth of the Cherokee and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokee.”
Another tale, “Origin of Disease and Medicine,” relates the bears’ anger over human forgetting of the bear song; and hearkens back to a golden age, when humans and animals had been able to communicate.
The Museum of the Cherokee and other Cherokee organizations support research, schools, programs, and publications. See the museum website at cherokeemuseum.org.
Barbara Duncan, museum education director, and author of “Living Stories of the Cherokee,” has combined with other nature writers in the new collection of poetry, “Every Breath Sings Mountains” (Voices from the American Land, 2011).
Nature writing is represented by a huge movement in the Asheville area. George Ellison has just edited the second volume of “High Vistas,” this time covering nature writing from 1900-2009 (History Press).
Ellison and other authors launch the book at Captain’s Bookshelf, Dec. 2.
Ellison’s first volume had revealed the richness of early writing about the region’s biosphere by such luminaries as William Bartram and Andre Michaux.
Scots-Irish, English, and German settlers to this region had read the Bible and the classics, but had kept their literature oral, for the most part.
The settlers enjoyed hymn and ballad singing, dance and play song-inventing, storytelling, preaching, and speech-making.
Zeb Vance had a big following; and still does—the historic site’s nearby, and its 1830s Christmas program is coming up, Dec. 3 (call 645-6706). Among other things, Vance won court cases, elections, and friends with a wit a whit saltier than Lincoln’s.
Thomas Wolfe based the patriarch of his novel, “The Hills Beyond”—Zachariah Joyner—on Vance. “If people in the eastern part of the state,” Wolfe has Joyner say, “would spend less time in thinking about where they came from, and more time in thinking about where they were going, they would be a lot easier to get along with.”
Sharyn McCrumb devotes herself to recreating Vance’s voice in two recent novels, “Ghost Riders” and “The Ballad of Tom Dooley” (Thomas Dunne, 2011).
Vance’s voice is related to that of Jack of beanstalk fame, an innocent, forthright character who meets adversity as it comes, and generally gets the best of it.
“Why are you standin’ out here alone? Is somethin’ a-bothering you? You’re sounding sad,” Jack tells a donkey in “Jack and the Robbers,” published as the book and CD, “The Jack Tales by Ray Hicks: as told to Lynn Salsi” (Calloway, 2000).
“My teeth’s all gone…My master don’t have time for the likes of me,” the donkey replies. “Come on along with me,” Jack suggests. Jack ends up taking a host of rejected animals on a running-away trip, and they have their day in the sun triumphing over a band of robbers.
Storytelling remains a vital power in the area, benefitting from a continuous tradition as well as new skews.
Gary Carden, Donald Davis, Connie Regan-Blake, Sheila Kay Adams, and Poetry Alive! deliver gold medal brews. Tellabration! hosted by the Asheville Storytelling Circle, is at the Folk Art Center today (call 667-4227). Carden’s variety show, “Liar’s Bench,” at the Heritage Center, Western Carolina University, has become a leading storytelling showcase; and there are many annual festivals throughout the region (see the link on “The Read on WNC”).
Wilma Dykeman’s three novels, “The Tall Woman,” “The Far Family,” and “Return the Innocent Earth,” provide a native and psychological life-scape of the region from before the Civil War up through post-World War II suburbanism.
At the end of the first novel, we find Martha Thurston taking her baby, Ivy, to the fresh grave of “the tall woman,” Martha’s mother.
Ivy “seemed to love the woods best,” Dykeman writes. “She clutched at every leaf and vine and flower they passed. And her hands were already (her) worst feature—and her best: long and large-boned hands that would hold loosely and give generously and build well, strong, like her grandmother’s.”
John Ehle’s six Western North Carolina-based novels—extending from pioneer days (“The Land Breakers” and “The Journey of August King”) up through the Depression (“Last One Home”)— continue to be read as large and subtle dramatic stories.
Many strong voices come from that long-unspoken-for source—pre-modern Appalachia. (See the list, “WNC Classics,” on “The Read on WNC.”)
Ginny Peace reveals her attitude of praise in Robert Morgan’s 1995 novel, “The Truest Pleasure.” After a revival meeting, she thinks about her walks along the Green River. Once, standing in a pool below a big rock, the water murmuring scripture, she looked up past tall hemlocks, and saw a little white cloud. “It was like,” she says, “I was standing and looking right up the ladder of trees into heaven.”
Martha’s and Ginny’s voices have much company these days, with hundreds of writers and family historians turning oral history into fiction, biographies, and memoirs. (See the list, “New WNC Books,” on “The Read on WNC.”)
Morgan also has a scholarly voice, imbued with a thorough knowledge of history and feeling about tradition. His 2007 biography, “Boone,” gave us a hero with a believable, romantic mindset. Morgan’s new work of non-fiction, “Lions of the West,” is a tour-de-force exploration of the Highland trailblazer spirit.
Land of the Sky, back of beyond
In 1876—before the railroad reached the mountains—Frances Tiernan published her vacationers’ romance, “Land of the Sky.”
After the railroad, it was as Ron Rash portrays things in his novel, “Serena.” Companies moved in to harvest trees and minerals; and song collectors, adventure writers, and story collectors moved in to harvest culture, most notably with respect.
Horace Kephart set up camp in Bryson City and celebrated life in what he called “the back of beyond.” His famous book, “Our Southern Highlanders,” casts him as a Hunter Thompson of his day.
The Great Smokies Mountain Association has just published two of Kephart’s other books: “Smoky Mountain Magic,” a novel about mountain people in the early 1900s; and a new edition of “Camping and Woodcraft,” his immensely practical and at times irascible handbook.
“One glance at a camper’s fire tells what kind of a woodsman he is,” Kephart snaps with an expert’s intolerance for inattention.
Kephart also could croon the cowboy’s song of longing about lost country. It’s a sound that we can hear, with an Appalachian cadence, in some of our region’s best poetry, one of the topics that will be covered in Part 2 of this survey next week.
Which Western North Carolina books was Thomas Wolfe reading in 1915, before going off to Chapel Hill?
Encouraged by his teacher, Margaret Roberts, at North State School in Asheville, he read the classics. On his paper route, he sampled the Asheville “Citizen.”
He might have found the works of Horace Kephart who, when Wolfe was a teen, published “Our Southern Highlanders,” “Camping and Woodcraft,” and “A Word-list from the Mountains of Western North Carolina.”
Perhaps his mother, Julia Wolfe, had a copy of Margaret Worley’s 1913 travelogue, “The Carolina Mountains.”
Olive Tilford Dargan, the world-renowned Kentucky playwright, had moved to Swain County, but she wouldn’t achieve fame as a local writer until she published “Highland Annals” (retitled “From My Highest Hill”) in 1925.
Would teenage Wolfe have been aware of Christian Reid’s romance, “The Land of the Sky,” set in the mountains; or of ethnographer James Mooney’s collection, “Myths of the Cherokee”?
When author Wilma Dykeman was sixteen, in 1936, she interviewed Wolfe in his cabin in Oteen. That visit back home was Wolfe’s big “You Can’t Go Home Again” moment before dying of tuberculosis of the brain two years later. After his death, Tom’s sister, Mabel Wolfe Wheaton, matched Dykeman and her future husband, James Stokely. In 1957, the Stokelys co-wrote the landmark survey of race relations in the South, “Neither Black Nor White.”
Two years earlier, Dykeman had debuted with her classic regional history, “The French Broad.” In that book, Dykeman reports how Wolfe had replied to Fitzgerald’s lament that Asheville was “a sterile town.”
“What are you talking about, Scott?” Wolfe had said, and told him about his 95-year-old great-uncle in Yancey County, who talked about fighting in the Battle of Chickamauga.
Ehle, Godwin, Black Mountain
Ehle was second, then. His early mountain novel, “The Land Breakers” (1963)—along with other Ehle books—have been reissued by Press 53.
Gail Godwin was an infant when Wolfe died. As she writes in her introduction to a brand new edition of “You Can’t Go Home Again”: “I had heard all the popular gossip about the local repercussions from his work long before I was old enough to read the novels (often morosely remarking to myself as I read: “He’s used up so much of my material”).
Her grandmother pointed out a person on the street and said, “That’s ____, you know, Tom Wolfe really went to town on him in that novel.” Five of Godwin’s thirteen novels, including her most recent, “Unfinished Desires,” are set in a place based in part on Asheville.
While Ehle was going to college and Godwin was growing up, Black Mountain College was operating as the breeding ground of avant-garde art. From this school, Jonathan Williams emerged to establish the historic Highlands press, The Jargon Society, in 1951. In 2005, three years before his death, Williams published, “Jubilant Thicket: New and Selected Poems.”
Many of the next generation of writers in the region—including those who reached national prominence in the 1980s and 1990s—voyaged, like Wolfe, to universities out of the region. Unlike Wolfe, they were country-born.
Fred Chappell mythologizes his country, Haywood County, in his Kirkman novels, beginning with “Brighten the Corner Where You Are”; and in his recent collection, “Ancestors and Other Stories.”
Robert Morgan grew up on a farm in Henderson County. After high school, he went to N.C. State, where he found writing teacher, Guy Moore, who said, “Write about the place and people where you grew up.”
Farm realism and religious mysticism fuse in Morgan’s poems and novels. In his first novel, “The Truest Pleasure,” Ginny, the heroine, sees heaven in a gap between trees while taking a walk along Green River after a revival. Her husband, Tom, sees only the value of hard work and land.
In his new book, “Lions of the West,” a work of non-fiction, Morgan reveals the reach of Highland romanticism.
Charles Frazier’s debut novel, “Cold Mountain,” and Ron Rash’s latest novel, “Serena,” are the biggest literary phenomena of the last fifteen years here. “Serena” follows a long literary track record for Rash, which includes two other forms he’s mastered—short stories with their drowning but waving characters; and poems, with their associations and visions.
In one poem in Rash’s new book, “Waking,” a veterinarian, driving a dark road to a farm, watches for “what stays unseen except on country roads after midnight,” a panther’s tail, perhaps. At the farm, he delivers a calf, turning its head “like a safe’s combination”; and then lingers “in the barn mouth watching stars/ awake in their wide pasture.”
Frazier landed a mega-hit with “Cold Mountain,” which upset the New York book world by winning the National Book Award. He has subsequently written two very different kinds of masterpieces: “Thirteen Moons,” an anti-heroic story about Will Thomas and the Cherokee; and “Nightwoods,” a literary thriller about a blood-soaked screw-up and a woman whose country values have more mojo than spooks.
By the 1990s, the literary climate in this region had become fertile, with independent bookstores, writing programs, and literary movements adding to the mix. One of the movements was the growth of Appalachian Studies programs, which goes back to the late author, Jim Wayne Miller, of Leicester, who published the guide, “Reading, Writing, Region,” in 1984.
Another movement involves the identification of this region as a place that harbors a lot of nature writers. As George Ellison shows in his new anthology, “High Vistas, Vol. 2,” the writers include not only the botanists of Vol. 1, but also an impressive host of contemporary authors.
BOOKS MENTIONED IN PART TWO
For expanded list, see New WNC Books and WNC Classics on “The Read on WNC.”
With two-thirds of the region’s literary legacy under our belts, we now come to Part 3, the contemporary scene.
It’s easy to say that the deepest, broadest current here today is poetry, involving many streams— international, performance, modern, traditional.
The traditional reaches back to a fertile time in our history, the era when local-bred bards went to college and interacted with modern masters.
James Still, of the Alabama and then Kentucky mountains—a key figure—had first caught the story bug from his older sister, who’d improvised tales while picking cotton in a row adjacent to his.
He was already “scribbling before the great books came into my hands,” he noted in his intro to “From the Mountain to the Valley: New and Collected Poems” (U. of Ky., 2001),
“Ideas” he said, “are hanging like pears from limbs.” They “rise up like birds from cover. They spring from reports in the ‘Troublesome Creek Times.’”
At Vanderbilt University, he studied under the “Fugitive Poets”—including John Crowe Ransom— whose Romantic, agrarian influence extended far, and caught on.
Like James Still, writers Fred Chappell, Robert Morgan, and Ron Rash found their voices in poetry; and then garnered popular reputations in fiction. For Morgan, a recent collection, “The Strange Attractor: New and Selected Poems” (LSU, 2004), is available.
For a large list of works by area poets, visit the website, “The Read on WNC.”
Kathryn Stripling Byer, North Carolina Poet Laureate from 2005-2009, had set off on her career after studying with Chappell at UNC-Greensboro. She got a job teaching at Western Carolina University and connected with the mountain homeland to which her grandmother, ensconced in Georgia, had always longed to return.
Emma Bell Miles’ “Spirit of the Mountains”; Lee Smith’s novel, “Oral History”; and Byer’s own explorations helped call forth her grandmother’s voice, and the voice of Alma, the speaker in Byer’s second volume, “Wildwood Flower.”
“Come down/ to bloodroot that blooms/ for a day only under the hemlock,” a mountain woman says in the poem, “April,” after spending a long winter alone. “The wind dawdles/ all afternoon while I worry/ the witch-bridles out of my hair.”
Byer has gone on to dwell on other subjects, producing finely made chapbooks, such as “Wake” (2003), a book of world consciousness. The lonely mountain woman’s voice has loosed itself from obscurity in other eloquent writers’ work, such as Nancy Dillingham (“Home”); and in fiction, Isabel Zuber (“Salt”) and Kathryn Magendie (“Tender Graces.”)
Visit Byer’s very active blog, “Here Where I Am,” at kathrynstriplingbyer.blogspot.com.
“Southern Appalachian Poetry: An Anthology of Works by 37 Poets,” edited Marita Garin, (McFarland, 2008) includes Byer, Chappell, Morgan, Rash, Still, Jim Wayne Miller (inventor of the modern “Brier” folk character), and others.
“Her Words,” edited by Felicia Mitchell (U, of Tenn., 2002) is a strong sampling of contemporary Appalachian women’s poetry. “Echoes across the Blue Ridge,” edited by Nancy Simpson (Winding Path, 2010) shows what’s growing from writers’ groups. Celia Miles and Nancy Dillingham have brought together volumes based on themes, most recently, “Women’s Spaces, Women’s Places from 50 WNC Women Writers” (Stone Ivy Press, 2011). The editors will be at City Lights Bookstore in Sylva, Dec. 15.
The performance poetry phenomenon in Asheville, blazed by Poetry Alive! and featured at Wordfest, has spawned many open mic events; and produced notable poets, including Glenis Redmond (“Under the Sun”); and Allan Wolf, who recently published his third dramatic verse narrative, “The Watch that Ends the Night: Voices from the Titanic” (Candlewick, 2011).
Asheville Poetry Review
The internationally renowned “Asheville Poetry Review,” edited by poet Keith Flynn, has a new issue out, its 18th annual. APR reaches out nationally, internationally and locally for poems and reviews that fill more than 200 pages in a volume,
Lauren Lawrence, poet and “Dreams” columnist for the “New York Daily News,” begins her poem, “Preparing for Your Elegy,” with a line that could have been Emily Dickinson’s: “It will be hard to move the emptiness—to push its awkward cart.” But unlike Dickinson, Lawrence doesn’t make rhymes. She does develop a vividly allegorical picture of the near-afterlife.
By coincidence in the alphabetical sequence of entries, Lawrence is followed by Federico Garcia Lorca, “possibly the most important Spanish poet and dramatist of the twentieth century,” the ample author note section at the back states.
Lorca is the master of allegorical fantasies. In “’Tis the Truth,” translated by Thomas Feeny of N.C. State, the poet professes, “For love of you, the very air/ hurts me. The air, my heart/ and my hat…,” and goes on to describe the hat.
Al Maginnes, who lives in Raleigh; publishes with the Charlotte press, Main Street Rag; and has been in Asheville for his new book, “Ghost Alphabet,” imagines the near-afterlife in his poem, “The Edge of the Field.” “The small gears/ of civilization dither and lock,/ and the older, larger gears, the ones/ ever-turning and ever-silent, let themselves/ be heard for a moment.”
Holly Iglesias, a teacher at UNCA, submits a new prose poem. Luke Hankins, APR Senior Editor, uses stair-stepped lines in his poem, “Earthly Kingdom,” to warble bayou observations that turn into jump-rope chants: “fangled wrangler with the mud, // slick pondswimmer, streamwanderer,/ watermoccassin”; and then turn into a story about a dog’s death.
Emily Dickinson, by the way, is the subject of one of the most successful “Big Read” programs, Tucson’s in Arizona this year. Visit bigreadtucson.com. The program fits in well with a local literary phenomenon—book discussions. Visit TheReadonWNC.ning.com, with links to libraries and bookstores.
Cathy Smith Bowers, the current N.C. Poet Laureate, has published three volumes, including “The Candle I Hold Up to See You” Iris Press, 2009). Bowers teaches within UNCA’s Great Smokies Writing Program (GSWP), directed by novelist Tommy Hays. See the Spring 2012 offerings and list of author-teachers at agc.unca.edu/great-smokies-writing-program. Richard Chess, another noted poet, teaches within the university’s English department.
Susan Lefler of Brevard is one of the poets who have been featured at GSMP’s monthly “Writers at Home” program at Malaprop’s Bookstore in Asheville. Her new book, “Rendering the Bones” (Wind Publications, 2011), is the product of a deep life-soak in great poems and an offering of resonant stories from her life.
Lefler has been published in APR, as well as “Appalachian Heritage,” “Main Street Rag,” “Pisgah Review,” and “Pinesong,” the N.C. Poetry Society’s annual anthology—a sampling of literary magazines to which one might add “Fresh” and “Cold Mountain Review,” Appalachian State’s journal of narrative prose and poetry.
Many great local authors teach at institutions of learning here. See the faculty at Warren Wilson College’s MFA Program for writers (www.warren-wilson.edu/~mfa); at Appalachian State University, where Joseph Bathanti teaches; and at Western Carolina University, where Ron Rash, Robert Conley, novelist Pamela Duncan, and poets Mary Adams (“Commandment”) and Catherine Carter (“The Memory of Gills”) teach.
Duncan, whose novels include “Plant Life,” notably represents a deep source for some area writers, mill town life. Poet and fiction writer Julia Nunnally Duncan of Marion has produced a new edition of her novel, “Drops of the Night” (March Street Press, 2011), which depicts love and a woman’s struggles in a farm town.
Vicki Lane continues to hold onto mountain ways with her latest novel in her Elizabeth Goodweather series, “Under the Skin” (Bantam, 2011).
To learn more about novelists, several of whom were featured in last week’s column, visit the new and classic WNC book lists on “The Read on WNC.”
Good, region-inspired children’s books are becoming more and more plentiful. The perennial author is Gloria Houston of Spruce Pine, whose credits include both historical novels for middle-grade students and picture books (“The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree”; “Miss Dorothy and Her Bookmobile”).
Local publishers are helping greatly: Bright Mountain Books (Fairview); Canterbury House (Vilas); Grateful Steps (Asheville); Highland Books (Brevard); Ingalls Publishing Group (Banner Elk); McFarland (Jefferson); Mountain Voice Publishers (Andrews); New Native Press (Cullowhee); and rENEGADE pLANETS pUBLISHING (qv) (Candler).
It should be noted that this survey has not opportunity to dwell on many great authors in the area, partly because they are not on book tours at the moment and partly because they are not part of the poetry scene.
Ann B. Ross, author of the socially delicious Miss Julia novels, published “Miss Julia Rocks the Cradle” in April. Sarah Addison Allen of Asheville has topped the charts with her blend of romance and magical realism/
David Madden, author and editor of many acclaimed works—most recently, the novel, “Abducted by Circumstance”—has settled in Black Mountain, and makes himself available as a mentor in programs. Ashevillian Elizabeth Kostova continues to write literary, popular novels with an interest in history and art, most recently, “The Swan Thieves.” Wayne Caldwell, a writer with Cataloochee, Asheville, and scholarly roots, unearths historical communities, as in his latest novel, “Requiem of Fire.”
Charles Price masters historical realism in each of his novels, including in his Hiwassee quartet and his Revolutionary War novel, “Nor the Battle to the Strong.” Heather Newton has come through writers groups in the area to publish a strong novel, “Under the Mercy Trees,” about a country family with a lot of disturbed parts.
This concludes the survey in print, but it will be expanded through reviews in the Citizen-Times, and features and exchanges on “The Read on WNC.”